Community Schools Bounce Back

While there’s no guarantee that a child will receive an education in rural Zambia, one community group, Chikanta is working to change that. Located in Choma, in the Southern Province of Zambia, Chikanta has been working to make children’s access to school a reality since 1997. They are a major part of the phenomenon of community schools, which provide up to 20% of Zambia’s underserved children and youth with educational opportunities. Math symbols posted on a school wallIn 1997, Frank Sikkabbubba, a charismatic leader motivated by a strong belief in children’s rights to education, mobilized community leaders around one idea: educating children. With significant support from the chief and community elders, Chikanta Community Schools Development Project (Chikanta) was established. Teachers were recruited from within the community. The community donated resources to support the vision. In fact, until receiving their first grant from Firelight Foundation in 2002, Chikanta was supported solely by community resources. Community members provided housing and food for teachers and helped to cover school construction and other costs through small cash or in-kind contributions.

Frank’s vision to see children from this remote and poor region have an opportunity to learn was coming to life. As word spread, more villages rallied together to establish schools in their community. Today, Chikanta has established over 150 community schools supported by 5,000 volunteers, making local education possible for more than 9,000 children.

Over time, the community schools have also become community centers. Adult literacy classes and care and support groups have been established. Women receive training to start income generating projects. Many changes have taken place and the community has transformed.

But the road has not been easy. Rapid growth due to the high demand for services sometimes stretched this growing organization.

And in the midst of Chikanta’s growth, the organization faced the loss of its founder. Frank Sikkabbubba died after a long illness in 2005. The organization was evicted from its offices. Without a leader to hold the vision and mobilize resources, the organization’s future looked bleak.

Although they faced an uncertain future, staff and community members refused to give up. Siabalumbi Simoonga and Buumba Mizinga personally committed Children forming a circle and joining hands outside in Zambiathemselves to leading the organization through the difficult transition. Community members sold maize to cover Chikanta's operational expenses. While the journey of rebuilding the organization seemed rather steep, the values Chikanta was founded on of strong community support and the importance of education, kept the new leaders and the community committed to success.

Firelight has seen several organizations challenged by th e loss of a leader, and we know that community leadership, open dialogue, and small targeted funds help. In 2008, Firelight gave Chikanta two grants: a technical assistance grant to help strengthen the organization’s operations and another to help strengthen Chikanta’s programs and increase their impact. In addition, Chikanta benefitted from Louis Mwewa, Firelight’s in-country resource person, for ongoing mentorship to the new leaders.

In Louis word’s “The journey to undertake the rebuilding of Chikanta seemed impossible at first, but with ongoing support and mentorship, Chikanta has managed to reinvigorate its Board; has developed a strategic plan; obtained government registration; and put into place a sound financial management system.” The depth of Chikanta’s leadership is seen in a new face and a new plan. They are now mobilizing resources to pay teachers, buy textbooks, and helping to build school infrastructure. This year, Chikanta will focus on mentoring 50 of their 150 community schools so that they can qualify for government sponsorship.

What started with one person’s idea has become a strong network able to weather the loss of a visionary leader to provide children knowledge, hope for the future, and reinforce the ability of community to care for its members.

children playing outside a schoolResources

Community schools have taken off in Zambia more so than in other countries where Firelight funds. One case study provides a larger context to this phenomenon specific to Zambia, noting the “exceptional performance” of community schools there. Another study, from Firelight executive director Peter Laugharn, provides information about sustainably financed community schools in Mali, which dramatically increased girls enrollment.

Firelight resource person Louis Mwewa has broad experience in supporting grassroots organizations throughout Zambia and neighboring countries. Based on this experience, he co-authored a report called “Community Action and the Test of Time,” published by USAID.